15 Games in 15 Years
This was a different sort of game design lecture. The speaker has a tradition of designing one game a year for his two kids, and these games never see any kind of commercial release. I won’t go into all 15 games, but here are some takeaways.
Understand your design goals when creating a game. Not every game needs to have a “simple to learn, hard to master, engaging and hours of entertainment” kind of goal. Some can be explicitly designed for purposes of “distract a 3-year old,” “teach the alphabet,” or even “give me an excuse to buy this awesome monster statue.” Be honest about your goals!
The pieces matter. Everyone says “just give me gameplay, I don’t care about pieces or graphics!” They lie. Stuff is fun, it captures the attention and the imagination. Cool pieces can’t make a terrible game great, but they can make a decent game great.
Likewise, story matters! A splash of narrative can make it easier to understand the gameplay specifics, and makes the whole game more engaging. People want to know what they’re accomplishing by playing the game!
Give your pieces personality, too. Just giving a piece a name and a catch phrase can help the player understand its personality, and also its game function. (You tied the game function into the personality, right?)
Cannibalize other toys and games to make your own. Plenty of games give you a cheap source of square tiles (Scrabble, Carcassonne), ships and tokens (Twilight Imperium) or figures (Heroscape). Steal them!
We’ve heard it before, and here it is again: iterate! Make a prototype, then improve on it! Especially when you’re making personal, non-commercial games, you can iterate for months and years on an idea. Keep tweaking!
If you have a mechanic you’re not sure about, put it on a character. Then, players can choose whether they want to use that mechanic or not. He gave an example of a ‘Witch’ piece which could start a 30 second timer, causing the current player to lose their turn. The Witch was created to combat a friend of his with analysis paralysis, who took forever to make a move. When that friend comes by, the Witch comes out; otherwise, she might not be chosen.
Use Excel to track complex games. When you’ve got a lot of numbers, you want to see them all in one place and neatly organized.
Having no randomness to a game makes it slow. No matter what designs he tried, the result was always the same: no randomness = slow and analytical.
Balancing is easier if the game automatically balances itself. An example is Puerto Rico; any role that doesn’t get chosen gets a bonus token on it each round. Hypothetically, the designers could create a terrible role, even one harmful to the player, and it would eventually get chosen due to the accumulation of bonus tokens.
3D printing is exciting! Who knows what new games we could make?
Personal games are a unique experience. They’re a direct reflection of you, and the only people you have to impress are the ones closest to you. Think long-term, no deadline, no stress, just enjoy the act of making a game.
The Story of Cave Story
This panel was pretty good, but nothing really surprising. Pixel worked hard, put a lot of his own creativity into his game, and got a great result.
The most interesting fact was that the game was nearly done – Pixel had done two years of work – then he completely scrapped it and started over because it just wasn’t working right.
Audio data is massive, but composing in MIDI has its own limitations. I think I heard him say that his process was to record a sound or music on a microphone, then look at the waveform and try to get close to recreating it with MIDI notes. Hopefully getting the variety of real sounds and the size-savings of MIDI.
Pixel identified five elements of a game:
Early stages should be simple and linear, then you can expand the complexity of the game once the player understands it.
Boss battles should try to outguess the player – make it seem like the boss is anticipating their movements.
Sound effects are useful. They’re cheap and easy to implement, and create a very responsive scene. You don’t need to animate something if you can use a sound effect to convey it instead. (Good example: you approach a door. The screen fades out, you hear the creak of a door opening, then the screen fades in on the next room.)
Music changes the impact of the visuals without needing to tweak the visuals at all. Cave Story has an example of this: early on you visit a village, with soft, welcoming music. Later on, after a tragedy, you return to the village, and empty, ominous music plays. Same visuals, but perfectly conveys the changing mood of the story.
Pixel talked about why the main character has amnesia – it helps the player be the main character, and creates a connection. I agree, but considering all the game characters who have amnesia at the start of their adventure, I think it’s time we buy our heroes some helmets.
Players don’t like long and forced tutorials. Design starting levels that encourage exploration and trying things out, and let the player feel like their cleverness helped them overcome the problem themselves.
No, Charles wasn’t a panel, but he’s a friend of mine from college. We caught up for a while, had lunch together, then went down to the Expo Floor.
Speaking of which, the expo floor was decent, but nothing really amazing. Conventions don’t really wow me anymore. If you want a full report of the expo floor, I’ll just say that there were a lot of companies there showing off a lot of shiny tech. There were also a lot of indie developers, a lot of people selling monetization plans for Facebook, and a few slot machine companies in attendance.
While we were wandering the expo floor, Charles and I got to talking about programming. I’ve been doing some basic Unity work, but I’m still baffled by programming – how to start a program, how to know what code to write, what all the different aspects of programming are. More specifically, I’ve always been confused by middleware – like, when I buy a license for Havok physics, what exactly am I buying? How do I use that? They keep saying I can just plug it into my games, but I looked at my computer and it didn’t have a Havok plug socket.
Charles was totally patient, and helped me grasp a lot of concepts. Like, I generally had an idea of what a language is, but he helped me understand why a language is. Same with classes, libraries, engines, APIs, and variables. It helped me get a lot more confidence that awesome coding is something that I could eventually learn how to do.
Classic Game Postmortem: Raid on Bungeling Bay
I only caught the first half of Will Wright’s look back at Bungeling Bay, but there were some interesting elements. It really called back to the idea of game design by accidents, and playing to your own personality. Will wanted to do a big game, and he wanted to do something with helicopters. He worked out some interesting tricks with his computer, and actually making it into a game came later.
Bungeling Bay is also notable for giving birth to SimCity, as Wright realized that he was often having more fun making islands and building cities than playing the game.
It was also interesting to learn about the depth of the game’s subsystems – that resources appear in the ocean, and boats pick them up, then tanks take them to factories, then the factories repair things you’ve damaged in a certain order. The world has a pretty involved economic system, but the player doesn’t need to know anything about it to enjoy the game.
From Student to Start-Up: Case Studies
I wanted to catch the last panel of the Game Career Seminar. It was pretty much what I expected: a lot of people looking for that golden nugget of advice on how to break in, and the presenters pretty much reiterating “Work hard, get your foot in the door, make stuff.” Cliff Bleszinski pretty much said it directly – “You’re all thinking that there’s just this one thing, one secret where if you can figure it out, your whole future will make sense. I just don’t have that answer, and I wish I did.”
And with that, it was the end of my GDC adventure, time to put away my badge and head home. It was definitely worth it – I made a lot of contacts, and drew a lot of inspiration. Coming out of the conference, thought, the weight of the work I need to do still hit me pretty heavily. Inspiration, research, and making mental connections are all incredibly important, but I really need to just get off my duff and start making something!
Well, I’ve taken a few steps in that direction. The first step has been to move my computer upstairs so I can have a standing desk. (I recommend it.) The other steps, well, they’ll be in the next few posts.
Keynote – Satoru Iwata & Reggie Fils-Amie, Nintendo
The keynote was decent, but not exactly mind-blowing. Iwata’s sections were pretty much “I’ve been doing games for a while.”
Reggie’s sections were pretty much shills for the 3DS. Basically lecturing on how the 3DS was going to revolutionize gaming forever. I’ll post my thoughts on the 3DS later, but it was a pretty short-sighted keynote, considering that the majority of your audience of game developers has played games on and developed for mobile devices and web browsers.
Overall, it wasn’t really inspiring. I feel like a keynote should raise awareness, bring up issues – be something that people are talking about for the rest of the conference. In that sense, it makes the conference run smoothly, by giving the attendees common ground for conversations. This keynote wasn’t really thought-provoking…more of a press conference, really.
Game Works of Yu Suzuki
I left this one. In retrospect, I didn’t realize that they had translation earpieces available, but I was picking up enough Japanese to realize that it was a pretty boring, Japanese-style interview. As in,
“Is it true that Space Harrier originally had a plane, but then you put a person in?”
“Yes, we did a test with a plane, and it did better when we put a person in.”
“Ah, I see.”
Not exactly hard-hitting journalism. Some podcasts I’ve listened to said it was a great panel, but I don’t regret leaving, because it let me catch the panel on Dynamics, which I heard people talking about for the rest of the con.
I missed the beginning, but here are the notes I caught.
You want to choose how your story is told. It can be strict, forcing the player into a specific experience, or loose, allowing the player to be creative and find their own experience. Either method can work, but it definitely changes the theme of the game.
Changing the fiction of the game can change the meaning and dynamics, even if the mechanics don’t change. Clint gave the example of making Tetris about shuttling trains off to a concentration camp. When completing lines means killing innocent people, does it change the meaning of the game? Does it change your playstyle?
Synthesis: A combination of players’ views. Meaning comes from multiple impressions across the course of the game.
Rigorous: The stronger the concern about the outcome, the more meaning.
Instantial: You can’t talk about the meaning of a game, but you can talk about the meaning of an instance of the game. That is to say, I can’t exactly say “Mass Effect 2 means this” but I can say “my playthrough of Mass Effect 2 meant this to me.”
…you know, I don’t really like my writeup of this panel. I think there was a lot of terminology I didn’t completely grasp, and I’m probably using wrong.
One hour, ten speakers, about five minutes each. How did it go?
Introduced the panel. I should read Kill Screen, and play Sleep is Death and In a Star-Filled Sky. (The advertising is working!)
Is the father of computer games computers, or games? Michael argues it’s computers. Computers have given us an expression of games that games could not have created alone.
All games are played, not all play is games.
Kids should code. All kids should try making computer games. He recommends Scratch to start.
We need a language around gaming. A lexicon.
We have experiences in games, but if we don’t share them, they disappear. Don’t keep your experiences to yourself. Share them.
The Fantasy of Labor: Keep playing, keep buying, keep grinding. It will pay off. Is this true? Have games led us astray?
Getting into a console game takes too damn long. We’re not talking about the tutorial; we’re talking about system boot, logo, select the game, load, logo, logo, logo, press start, loading, accept legal agreement, loading, go. When I put a disc in that I’ve already played, just skip all that and start right from my most recent save.
This is why people are going to the DS and iPhone for gaming; you can get gaming and have a meaningful experience in 20-30 seconds.
Look at Farmville and Minecraft, games which are in a state of perpetual playtesting.
More playtesting = better games.
Text adventures were great. We had more direct control, more freedom, and less cutscenes.
What happened? When did we decide that we wanted to emulate movies?
Can we change the direction games are headed?
My notes aren’t great for this one.
Jason condemned thoughtful, artsy games for being boring. He looked to other modern games that can keep you focused for 8 hours at a time.
He noted games where there’s survival value in staying focused – where paying attention helps you succeed.
Games help us explore our dreamscapes. We should remind people why they used to play, and how they could get lost in their own imagination.
Everything can be a game. If you can play it, it will become a game.
Pro Guitar in Rock Band 3
When making design decisions, always go back to the One Question about your game.
For Guitar Hero, this was “Is this Rock?”
For Rock Band, this was “Is this an authentic band experience?”
They narrowed down their scope by choosing a definite target: Hard/Expert Rock Band players with no previous guitar experience. They wanted to teach these players the ‘campfire versions’ of their favorite songs, and let them graduate to the real versions at their own pace.
They spent 3 months on early concepts, 7 months prototyping, and 13 months in production.
Concepts: They had to narrow down a massive space of possibilities to a few possible ideas. What information did they want to convey first? How realistic would it be? What compromises were they willing to make?
Prototyping: Harmonix used a small strike team to prototype. The designers are also the implementers; if you have an idea, you have to figure out how to make it real.
They didn’t worry about hardware. They figured they’d make the feature, then figure out how to create the hardware they needed later.
They essentially created a new way of noting music; it’s not tabs, musical notation, or chord charts. Pretty impressive!
They found an issue when they tested; people said it was interesting, engaging, immersive, but not fun. They thought about it, but realized that for Rock Band, fun was what they needed to be testing for.
Suggestions from the prototyping phase:
- Reduce your team size.
- If an idea keeps coming up, even if it sounds stupid, you need to try it! It’s stuck in everyone’s head for a reason.
- Don’t skimp on the low-hanging fruit. It’s tempting to say “we’re short on time, and we know how we’ll do X. We’ll do it later.” But putting those easy features in place can give you more insight into how the hard features can work.
– You can’t make a good design decision just by debating it. Make prototypes!
Production: This took much longer than expected. Their team expanded, and they became more reliant on external resources. The actual Pro Guitars were slow to be manufactured, and the final RB3 song list was finalized fairly late.
To get back on track:
- Refocus on your target market. Pro Guitar is for new guitar players. Prioritize your features based on that market.
- Switch to short-term deadlines. Keep people focused on iterating in the short-term, and quickly.
- Use placeholder content for rapid development. Jury-rig whatever you need to get your ideas tested.
The Failure Workshop
Stories of the games that failed, and what you can learn from the attempts.
Robot and the Cities that Built Him
Went 6 months before doing a gameplay prototype, then realized that despite all the polish, the gameplay just wasn’t fun.
No amount of theming will save a bad idea.
Also, trying to live up to a previous game is paralyzing. Let go of your expectations for yourself.
Cat Mouse Foosball
George Fan designed a game, did some sketches, and thought it would be amazingly fun. When he prototyped it, he found that it just wasn’t any good. There was a total disconnect between how he thought it would play, and how it worked.
The difference between artists and designers:
Illustration takes place primarily in the mind. You imagine the total image you want, then make it.
Design can’t possibly imagine all the aspects of gameplay and the interactions between the systems. You can’t just think up good gameplay, you have to try it out!
Start prototyping as soon as you can!
Off-Road Velociraptor Safari HD
First off, calling it HD was a mistake. It builds a particular set of expectations. ‘Remix’ might have been more accurate.
They thought that doing an updated version of an old game would be easy, but it was a grind. Don’t confuse comfort with happiness – you may know how to improve these textures and remake these models, but that doesn’t mean it’ll be fun.
They lost sight of “games should be fun.” The game stopped being made for the players, and started being made for other purposes, to keep up with other games, to show off, etc.
Unlike the other games on the list, Stardock actually released Elemental.
They had a small-company structure, and when they increased the size of their team, they didn’t improve the structure. What works for 7 doesn’t work for 25.
It’s hard for a small studio to swallow the need to pay for a full-time producer. He’s not contributing, making art or code! What good is he? Well, you need someone objective to keep the project in line, and to have no personal involvement in any of the production. You need someone who can kill those unnecessary features.
Come down hard on scope creep. Keep your design focused, and don’t let people add new features without the producer’s say.
Rock Climbing Game
Chris Hecker kept adding more and more systems to the game: body physics, fatigue calculations, balance calculators…eventually, he realized that he was scared of the game’s design. He was retreating into his comfort zone – technical systems – as a way of avoiding the issue that he didn’t have a game yet.
NBA Jam Postmortem
How did they make such a strong sequel to NBA Jam? He cited the rule of thirds:
1/3 the same. Give the fans the things they remember.
1/3 improved. The same, but better. Don’t mess with the formula, but improve it.
1/3 new. Give them new features and ideas, but don’t violate the spirit of your source material.
Always stay true to your source material! In their case, they chose a specific example – the first arcade cabinet of NBA Jam – and based all their decisions on how to recreate that feeling.
On Voice Actors: Help them get into character. He referenced that the voice of NBA Jam had this really exuberant Scottie Pippin poster that he tacked up in the recording booth, and it helped him drop into the NBA Jam voice instantly. Think about props, posters, concept art, and lighting that you can use to get your voices in the zone as quickly as possible.
Overall, find your fun as quickly as possible. Identify your core gameplay, and make it shine.
Independent Game Festival Awards
Lots of good games I need to check out. Fract, Amnesia, Nidhogg, Desktop Dungeons, Bastion, Dream Machine, B.U.T.T.O.N., ByteJacker, Limbo, GameDevStory. I’m going to be busy!
Game Developer’s Choice Awards
Red Dead Redemption is game of the year! It wouldn’t have been my choice, but there’s no denying that it’s a great game.
Double Fine revealed their next game, Trenched. The trailer doesn’t do a lot for it; it’s a mech shooter. If there’s a cool twist, I didn’t see it in the footage they showed.
Met with a friend from UCI, Charles Black, and got into the Gamespy party. Talked to some people, exchanged some business cards. It was fun, although the food and the drinks both ended far too quickly. What’s up with that?